Bad Girls, Bad Girls- What You Gonna Do? Tips for Teaching in a Women's Prison

'There better be PAL lessons or I'm fuckin' wreckin' the place.'
I was asked to advise someone working in a young offender institution. Because my experience is solely in  secondary comprehensives, and I'm not entirely an ars*h*le, I asked someone who had more knowledge in this area. Obviously this flies in the face of current educational voodoo, which recommends that I instead discuss it in a group of other people who don't know the answer either, and then feed our collectively-conjoined ignorance back to the class as the new right answer. Or 'share ways forward', as they say in Hades. No, I went old-school and asked an expert.

Here's what an experienced women's prison teacher told me about managing classes- not quite a secondary comp, but perhaps we can just see it as an exciting further-education academy where break-out zones mean something else entirely, and the teachers actively discourage creative thinking in the workshop, particularly when it comes to fashioning crude katanas from toothbrushes and razorblades. The teacher prefers anonymity, for reasons of professional discretion, and not wishing to wake up next to the head of a guinea-pig:

"Six years of teaching art in women's prisons taught me the following tactics:

'I endorse this advice.'
  1. Make the aim of the lesson clear the second they enter the room- these are institutionalised people who may find being in a room where they will have to make choices for themselves quite daunting until they warm up; this will cause anxiety, which could cause friction and start a lesson off badly. It will also get rid of  anyone just coming in for a chat with their mates.
  2. Keep everyone busy at all times!! Give a relevant book or magazine (have a stash of these) to anyone too dozy for whatever reason to work (prisons give out really strong anti-depressants). Remember they may not know how to read, so ones with pictures.
  3. Be sympathetic but firm about the activity. Let there be a bit of chat in the first 10 minutes, as something is often going on back in the units/wings (officers being heavy-handed, lack of medication to control depression or drug addition, or a fight). Education block is where they can let off any anxieties and discuss problems without officers hearing. End it with a, 'Right lets get on,' otherwise it will interrupt the whole lesson.
  4. Be over fussy and firm about any sharp tools in the room, make it very clear that safety is your priority- don’t be afraid to come across as prissy about scissors or cables; this will affect discipline. Inmates need to feel safe so they can relax and work, and no-one is going to put their head down and write if there is an unattended blade in the room- don’t underestimate the fear in the room; they are all really good at hiding it .
  5. Don’t place the blame too quick in a confrontation; that will lead to a fight as everyone else in the room will feel obliged to take sides. Be firm and fair to both sides even if you know who the ringleader is. Use, 'OK, lets stop winding each other up,' or, 'Can this wait until after the lesson? I don’t care who's doing what, just get on with the project!'
  6. Have a naughty list which will go to the officers at the end of the lesson. Leave prominently on your desk- you can be firm but jovial about this; it is childish, but you have no choice. Tell them that they are stopping others from learning and you from doing your job. Offer to take them off the list if they start to be reasonable and stick to this; don’t tell the officers. There is no real point in getting involved in punishment on the units (loads of paperwork-trust me). This will gain their trust and next time they see you they will remember that you won’t grass and will continue to behave.
  7. Separate one of the disruptive ones and make them sit really close to you, even at your desk- often they just want some attention even if it is from you. You may have to spend the rest of the class in mindless chat but if the rest of the class is relieved from it, they will achieve more.
  8. Bribery. Life in prison is unbelievable grim . Promise to finish the lesson with 15 minutes of doing something they want to do. Write a poem/ have some short ones for them to copy out/ have some crosswords photocopied/ word-searches/put on some music.  At the end of every session I would bring out some A4 card, some really cheap and cheerful stickers- hearts or teddies and pens so they could make a card to send to their kids/ boyfriends/ girlfriends and I would help them make a simple envelope with recycled poster paper and double sided tape. This one-to-one task doing something that they want to do can be a great 'getting to know you' moment and a chance for you to get feedback on what they thought they had achieved in the lesson. Check with the officers what they are allowed to take back with them first, but giving them a small pencil or betting pens, some writing paper, can make their evenings locked up more bearable, and they will come back.
  9. Use the officers-they will not hesitate to help you. Ask them to pop in half way through the lesson; this is always a last resort as I’ve never met a subtle officer, but your own safety has to be your and their priority."

I imagine it's a bit like this.
An interesting insight to how a safe learning environment is achieved in a very high-stakes environment. What I find fascinating is the universality of some of this; some things are constant no matter what or where you go. People need to know that there is a structure and boundaries to their space, and they need to know that there will be consequences to abusing that structure. They also need to know that the consequences can be in their favour, or contrary to it, depending on whether they cooperate with the good of the polis, or contravene it. Such is the nature of humanity.

Schools are not prisons (I checked in a dictionary), but a class is a class. In any school, the stakes are high enough, at least if you care about the future well-being of your students. But at least most of us don't have to worry about lockdowns, cell-checks and riots. Not yet, anyway.

Mind you, they don't have to worry about FFT or thinking hats. On second thoughts, maybe....

Raise a glass to all the teachers in extreme classes *Raises glass*


  1. I used to work in a male prison, first as a library assistant, then as a Chaplain. I agree with all the above. I ran courses in the Chaplaincy and quite a few men would sign up just to get off the wings. The best way to deal with that was to give tough 'homework' to be completed before next meeting - no homework meant no meeting. This was also used by the stunningly beautiful Pagan chaplain. She could quell a rowdy room with one look! I must say the experience as Chaplain means I deal with my tiny bad boys with confidence.

    1. You have had quite a career, AG. And 'a stunningly beautiful Pagan Chaplain' sounds like a character from an Anne Rice novel.

  2. Very interesting article. I'm assuming from the reference to getting rid of anyone just coming in for a chat that the lessons are voluntary. If all of this careful management is still necessary, I can only begin to imagine the tension there must be in the average prison. I'll raise a glass with you!

    As regards your controversial approach of consulting someone who has actual experience of what they're talking about, I'd love to see the modern education strategies applied in prison. Red, Amber and Green paper cups on every desk, and forget being able to make cards for their loved ones as a reward - take that time away from them and stick in some AFL!

    Also, I hope that somewhere there's a prison education manager who has taken no account of the personal choices and circumstances that have got the inmates into prison, and is STILL demanding that they achieve the targets that their KS2 levels require that they achieve.

    1. If prisons were held to account like schools, they'd be empty and shut...

  3. I have previously taught adult and young offenders and now teach in a young person's prison. Although I agree with some of the points raised a few of the comments and approaches concerned me. These would be my top tips:
    1. Consistency is key. These young people need to know immediately what is expected of them & what they will be expected to do. Consistency in approach, manner and delivery is vital to building up rapport and trust (with the learners changing classes and teachers on a very regular basis, we're talking every two weeks ish, you've got to do all you can to make this as quick as possible).
    2. Have high expectations: lay out your expectations at the start and you'll be astonished at what the young people will do. Never let these drop.
    3. Focus on the learner journey: Where I am education is compulsory for every young person (15 hours a week). This doesn't often go down well so being able to explain why they are in class, what qualifications they are going to achieve and where these might take them is important. Teachers in the offender learning segment must not forget that the learners are on a journey that might completely turn their lives around; our course is just one element of that trip. Focusing hard as a team (teacher and learner) on getting qualifications (Fucntional Skills, Adult Basic Skills, GCSEs plus all the vocational qualifications) gives education a purpose and offers learners hope. Prison teachers are not simply there to the give prisoners something to do each day, we are there to further their learning & help them achieve.
    4. Keep them engaged: be busy busy busy! Short, sharp tasks are vital, although issuing magazines out to those that aren't really feeling up to it one day isn't the best way forward. Being engaging, relevant and furthering learning is the best approach. We have the daily struggles with learners who are on medication/had some bad news last night/are feeling angry or violent etc but that's the challenge: finding ways around the barriers and breaking them down; getting the learners engaged on a relevant task that will further learning even if they don't realise it. They may even enjoy it too!
    5. Be human: being normal and sometimes showing your faults really doesn't do any harm. Sometimes the young people feel as though they are treated differently so pointing out the similarities between us all really helps with class dynamics. We, as teachers, also have to remember to not assume our learner is going to be of a particular sort just because he is a prisoner: like all other learners, every one is different.
    6. Be calm, cool and collected: You need to show who is boss but being militant isn't the best way forward for classroom management. From experience I've found that the best way to deal with challenging behaviour is to be calm, consistent and firm. There's no point raising your voice, arguing or getting stroppy; tempers will flare quickly and that's the last thing we want. Being laid back, addressing negative behaviour quietly and being an approachable, interesting teacher works best. Sometimes things happen that require further action and following prison procedures IS the best way to deal with it. It is time consuming in terms of the paperwork element but we have to show learners that we are not a soft touch. Again, the word consistency springs to mind.
    Although I found the article interesting to read, the content that advised prison teachers to use bribery & a naughty list did not settle well. We wouldn't do that sort of thing in a school or college so why do it in a prison? The learners are there to go through a rehabilitation process and we have to hope and aim for them all to (one day) move forward into either employment or further training. There will be no bribery or singling people out there so why should we use those tactics in prison? Those tactics might make our job a little easier but they certainly won't do anything to help the people in our care.

  4. Read your excellent comment a few times to absorb it properly. Really interesting, thanks. Glad to see that clear boundaries and high expectations appears to be a universal prerequisite to good teaching wherever you go. I think bribery comes in many forms, and many/ most teachers use it in SOME form or another, even if it's just bargaining in specific cases, or promising rewards for good work. Depends on the context, I imagine.

    Thanks again. I promise to pinch your ideas in future discussions about young offender education. :)


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